Executive Director Reports

Attack on pensions engineered by corporate elite

I’ve been around long enough to witness lots of outrages in the state legislature, but few are quite as shameful as last month’s bipartisan dismantling of retirement security for future generations of Illinois public employees.

House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat, had taken the major provisions of a pension bill sponsored by the Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Republican, expanded it to include all Illinois public employees and rammed it through the House with the help of Minority Leader Tom Cross, a Republican. All but a handful of lawmakers in each party voted yes.
Within hours, Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat, commandeered a repeat performance in his chamber, with Radogno’s praise. So anxious were the senators to push this bill through that I was cut off by the committee chair after giving only five minutes of testimony in opposition.

Imagine, a bill that affects hundreds of thousands of future public employees’ retirement security, and in just a few hours the General Assembly passes it, without a thought given to its impact on people’s lives.
Legislative leaders and their respective caucuses, or should I say the shepherds and their sheep, hoped to avoid letting us dispel the myths that dominate public dialogue of the pension issue. No one in Springfield wanted the public to know that:

And legislators most certainly didn’t want anyone examining the policy implications.

What would it mean for attracting and retaining quality employees? How will those in very demanding jobs be able to fulfill their responsibilities till age 67? How much more will it cost public employers, and taxpayers, for the higher salaries of longtime employees, versus the cost of new hires?
And how much will public employer health-care costs rise as they cope with the greater health problems that generally confront folks in their 60s?

No time to look at those “trivial” issues.
Business interests, led by a group of corporate chieftains who operate as the Commercial Club of Chicago, have kept up a steady drumbeat of attacks on public pensions.
Although this cabal is elected by no one but themselves, their deep pockets and virtual unlimited access to the media moguls, in whose social circles they travel, give them tremendous influence with Springfield politicians.
So when one of those corporate bigwigs writes an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune, expressing the “outrage” of his sidekicks at the exorbitant pensions enjoyed by state employees, no one stops to ask how much these pensions are.
It would be inconvenient if citizens knew the real numbers, and even worse if the public knew that the author himself has a $1.4 million annual pension, even as he sits on the boards of directors of four major corporations, netting him another $650,000 in 2008. Maybe the upkeep on his $5 million home is such that he needs all five monthly checks.
To keep those big bucks coming, I guess he also feels the need to beat up on the pensions of retired teachers, nurses, and other public servants. And servile politicians, ever anxious to please their corporate masters, jump to the tune.
In this instance, there was an added benefit: appearing to tackle a problem while not even touching it. Legislators who spoke presented the measure as something that would deal with the state’s $13 billion budget deficit and its $80 billion unfunded pension liability. They swore that the bill would improve the state’s bond rating, enabling it to borrow at reduced costs.
Guess what. Within a week the state’s bond rating was downgraded. The $13 billion deficit is still $13 billion. The unfunded state pension liability is still $80 billion.

Add it up. No improvement on the deficit front, no progress in addressing the pension liability any time soon and a bleak future for anyone who might someday choose public service.

If your representative and senator voted to create a two-tier pension system and they haven’t heard from you yet, make sure they do.
We know of no limit to the depths to which they might sink, and before we find out how low they can go, we’ve got to let them know they’ve already gone too far.